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The Nether World
LONDON ∙ NEW YORK ∙ TORONTO ∙ SAO PAULO ∙ MOSCOW
PARIS ∙ MADRID ∙ BERLIN ∙ ROME ∙ MEXICO CITY ∙ MUMBAI ∙ SEOUL ∙ DOHA
TOKYO ∙ SYDNEY ∙ CAPE TOWN ∙ AUCKLAND ∙ BEIJING
Published by Sovereign Classic
First published in 2016
Copyright © 2016 Sovereign
All Rights Reserved.
A THRALL OF THRALLS
In the troubled twilight of a March evening ten years ago, an old man, whose equipment and bearing suggested that he was fresh from travel, walked slowly across Clerkenwell Green, and by the graveyard of St. James’s Church stood for a moment looking about him. His age could not be far from seventy, but, despite the stoop of his shoulders, he gave little sign of failing under the burden of years; his sober step indicated gravity of character rather than bodily feebleness, and his grasp of a stout stick was not such as bespeaks need of support. His attire was neither that of a man of leisure, nor of the kind usually worn by English mechanics. Instead of coat and waistcoat, he wore a garment something like a fisherman’s guernsey, and over this a coarse short cloak, picturesque in appearance as it was buffeted by the wind. His trousers were of moleskin; his boots reached almost to his knees; for head-covering he had the cheapest kind of undyed felt, its form exactly that of the old petasus. To say that his aspect was Venerable would serve to present him in a measure, yet would not be wholly accurate, for there was too much of past struggle and present anxiety in his countenance to permit full expression of the natural dignity of the features. It was a fine face and might have been distinctly noble, but circumstances had marred the purpose of Nature; you perceived that his cares had too often been of the kind which are created by ignoble necessities, such as leave to most men of his standing a bare humanity of visage. He had long thin white hair; his beard was short and merely grizzled. In his left hand he carried a bundle, which probably contained clothing.
The burial-ground by which he had paused was as little restful to the eye as are most of those discoverable in the byways of London. The small trees that grew about it shivered in their leaflessness; the rank grass was wan under the failing day; most of the stones leaned this way or that, emblems of neglect (they were very white at the top, and darkened downwards till the damp soil made them black), and certain cats and dogs were prowling or sporting among the graves. At this corner the east wind blew with malice such as it never puts forth save where there are poorly clad people to be pierced; it swept before it thin clouds of unsavoury dust, mingled with the light refuse of the streets. Above the shapeless houses night was signalling a murky approach; the sky—if sky it could be called—gave threatening of sleet, perchance of snow. And on every side was the rumble of traffic, the voiceful evidence of toil and of poverty; hawkers were crying their goods; the inevitable organ was clanging before a public-house hard by; the crumpet-man was hastening along, with monotonous ringing of his bell and hoarse rhythmic wail.
The old man had fixed his eyes half absently on the inscription of a gravestone near him; a lean cat springing out between the iron railings seemed to recall his attention, and with a slight sigh he went forward along the narrow street which is called St. James’s Walk. In a few minutes he had reached the end of it, and found himself facing a high grey-brick wall, wherein, at this point, was an arched gateway closed with black doors. He looked at the gateway, then fixed his gaze on something that stood just above—something which the dusk half concealed, and by so doing made more impressive. It was the sculptured counterfeit of a human face, that of a man distraught with agony. The eyes stared wildly from their sockets, the hair struggled in maniac disorder, the forehead was wrung with torture, the cheeks sunken, the throat fearsomely wasted, and from the wide lips there seemed to be issuing a horrible cry. Above this hideous effigy was carved the legend: ‘MIDDLESEX HOUSE OF DETENTION.’
Something more than pain came to the old man’s face as he looked and pondered; his lips trembled like those of one in anger, and his eyes had a stern resentful gleaming. He walked on a few paces, then suddenly stopped where a woman was standing at an open door.
‘I ask your pardon,’ he said, addressing her with the courtesy which owes nothing to refined intercourse, ‘but do you by chance know anyone of the name of Snowdon hereabouts?’
The woman replied with a brief negative; she smiled at the appearance of the questioner, and, with the vulgar instinct, looked about for someone to share her amusement.
‘Better inquire at the ‘ouse at the corner,’ she added, as the man was moving away. ‘They’ve been here a long time, I b’lieve.’
He accepted her advice. But the people at the public-house could not aid his search. He thanked them, paused for a moment with his eyes down, then again sighed slightly and went forth into the gathering gloom.
Less than five minutes later there ran into the same house of refreshment a little slight girl, perhaps thirteen years old; she carried a jug, and at the bar asked for ‘a pint of old six.’ The barman, whilst drawing the ale, called out to a man who had entered immediately after the child:
‘Don’t know nobody called Snowdon about ‘ere, do you, Mr. Squibbs?’
The individual addressed was very dirty, very sleepy, and seemingly at odds with mankind. He replied contemptuously with a word which, in phonetic rendering may perhaps be spelt ‘Nay-oo.’
But the little girl was looking eagerly from one man to the other; what had been said appeared to excite keen interest in her. She forgot all about the beer-jug that was waiting, and, after a brief but obvious struggle with timidity, said in an uncertain voice:
‘Has somebody been asking for that name, sir?’
‘Yes, they have,’ the barman answered, in surprise. ‘Why?’
My name’s Snowdon, sir—Jane Snowdon.’
She reddened over all her face as soon as she had given utterance to the impulsive words. The barman was regarding her with a sort of semi-interest, and Mr. Squibbs also had fixed his bleary (or beery) eyes upon her. Neither would have admitted an active interest in so pale and thin and wretchedly-clad a little mortal. Her hair hung loose, and had no covering; it was hair of no particular colour, and seemed to have been for a long time utterly untended; the wind, on her run hither, had tossed it into much disorder. Signs there were of some kind of clothing beneath the short, dirty, worn dress, but it was evidently of the scantiest description. The freely exposed neck was very thin, but, like the outline of her face, spoke less of a feeble habit of body than of the present pinch of sheer hunger. She did not, indeed, look like one of those children who are born in disease and starvation, and put to nurse upon the pavement; her limbs were shapely enough, her back was straight, she had features that were not merely human, but girl-like, and her look had in it the light of an intelligence generally sought for in vain among the children of the street. The blush and the way in which she hung her head were likewise tokens of a nature endowed with ample sensitiveness.
‘Oh, your name’s Jane Snowdon, is it?’ said the barman. ‘Well, you’re just three minutes an’ three-quarters too late. P’r’aps it’s a fortune a-runnin’ after you. He was a rum old party as inquired. Never mind; it’s all in a life. There’s fortunes lost every week by a good deal less than three minutes when it’s ‘orses—eh, Mr. Squibbs?’
Mr. Squibbs swore with emphasis.
The little girl took her jug of beer and was turning away.
‘Hollo!’ cried the barman. ‘Where’s the money, Jane?—if you don’t mind.’
She turned again in increased confusion, and laid coppers on the counter. Thereupon the man asked her where she lived; she named a house in Clerkenwell Close, near at hand.
‘Father live there?’
She shook her head.
‘I haven’t got one, sir.’
‘Who is it as you live with, then?’
‘Mrs. Peckover, sir.’
‘Well, as I was sayin’, he was a queer old joker as arsted for the name of Snowdon. Shouldn’t wonder if you see him goin’ round.’
And he added a pretty full description of this old man, to which the girl listened closely. Then she went thoughtfully—a little sadly—on her way.
In the street, all but dark by this time, she cast anxious glances onwards and behind, but no old man in an odd hat and cloak and with white hair was discoverable. Linger she might not. She reached a house of which the front-door stood open; it looked black and cavernous within; but she advanced with the step of familiarity, and went downstairs to a front-kitchen. Through the half-open door came a strong odour and a hissing sound, plainly due to the frying of sausages. Before Jane could enter she was greeted sharply in a voice which was young and that of a female, but had no other quality of graciousness.
‘You’ve taken your time, my lady! All right! just wait till I’ve ‘ad my tea, that’s all! Me an’ you’ll settle accounts to-night, see if we don’t. Mother told me as she owed you a lickin’, and I’ll pay it off, with a little on my own account too. Only wait till I’ve ‘ad my tea, that’s all. What are you standin’ there for, like a fool? Bring that beer ‘ere, an’ let’s see ‘ow much you’ve drank.’
‘I haven’t put my lips near it, miss; indeed I haven’t,’ pleaded the child, whose face of dread proved both natural timidity and the constant apprehension of ill-usage.
‘Little liar! that’s what you always was, an’ always will be.— Take that!’
The speaker was a girl of sixteen, tall, rather bony, rudely handsome; the hand with which she struck was large and coarse-fibred, the muscles that impelled it vigorous. Her dress was that of a work-girl, unsubstantial, ill-fitting, but of ambitious cut; her hair was very abundant, and rose upon the back of her head in thick coils, an elegant fringe depending in front. The fire had made her face scarlet, and in the lamplight her large eyes glistened with many joys.
First and foremost, Miss Clementina Peckover rejoiced because she had left work much earlier than usual, and was about to enjoy what she would have described as a ‘blow out.’ Secondly, she rejoiced because her mother, the landlady of the house, was absent for the night, and consequently she would exercise sole authority over the domestic slave, Jane Snowdon—that is to say, would indulge to the uttermost her instincts of cruelty in tormenting a defenceless creature. Finally—a cause of happiness antecedent to the others, but less vivid in her mind at this moment—in the next room lay awaiting burial the corpse of Mrs. Peckover’s mother-in-law, whose death six days ago had plunged mother and daughter into profound delight, partly because they were relieved at length from making a pretence of humanity to a bed-ridden old woman, partly owing to the fact that the deceased had left behind her a sum of seventy-five pounds, exclusive of moneys due from a burial-club.
‘Ah!’ exclaimed Miss Peckover (who was affectionately known to her intimates as ‘Clem’), as she watched Jane stagger back from the blow, and hide her face in silent endurance of pain. ‘That’s just a morsel to stay your appetite, my lady! You didn’t expect me back ‘ome at this time, did you? You thought as you was goin’ to have the kitchen to yourself when mother went. Ha ha! ho ho!—These sausages is done; now you clean that fryin’-pan; and if I can find a speck of dirt in it as big as ‘arlf a farden, I’ll take you by the ‘air of the ‘ed an’ clean it with your face, that’s what I’ll do I Understand? Oh, I mean what I say, my lady! Me an’ you’s a-goin’ to spend a evenin’ together, there’s no two ways about that. He ho! he he!’
The frankness of Clem’s brutality went far towards redeeming her character. The exquisite satisfaction with which she viewed Jane’s present misery, the broad joviality with which she gloated over the prospect of cruelties shortly to be inflicted, put her at once on a par with the noble savage running wild in woods. Civilisation could bring no charge against this young woman; it and she had no common criterion. Who knows but this lust of hers for sanguinary domination was the natural enough issue of the brutalising serfdom of her predecessors in the family line of the Peckovers? A thrall suddenly endowed with authority will assuredly make bitter work for the luckless creature in the next degree of thraldom.
A cloth was already spread across one end of the deal table, with such other preparations for a meal as Clem deemed adequate. The sausages—five in number—she had emptied from the frying-pan directly on to her plate, and with them all the black rich juice that had exuded in the process of cooking—particularly rich, owing to its having several times caught fire and blazed triumphantly. On sitting down and squaring her comely frame to work, the first thing Clem did was to take a long draught out of the beer-jug; refreshed thus, she poured the remaining liquor into a glass. Ready at hand was mustard, made in a tea-cup; having taken a certain quantity of this condiment on to her knife, she proceeded to spread each sausage with it from end to end, patting them in a friendly way as she finished the operation. Next she sprinkled them with pepper, and after that she constructed a little pile of salt on the side of the plate, using her fingers to convey it from the salt-cellar. It remained to cut a thick slice of bread—she held the loaf pressed to her bosom whilst doing this—and to crush it down well into the black grease beside the sausages; then Clem was ready to begin.
For five minutes she fed heartily, showing really remarkable skill in conveying pieces of sausage to her mouth by means of the knife alone. Finding it necessary to breathe at last, she looked round at Jane. The hand-maiden was on her knees near the fire, scrubbing very hard at the pan with successive pieces of newspaper. It was a sight to increase the gusto of Clem’s meal, but of a sudden there came into the girl’s mind a yet more delightful thought. I have mentioned that in the back-kitchen lay the body of a dead woman; it was already encoffined, and waited for interment on the morrow, when Mrs. Peckover would arrive with a certain female relative from St. Albans. Now the proximity of this corpse was a ceaseless occasion of dread and misery to Jane Snowdon; the poor child had each night to make up a bed for herself in this front-room, dragging together a little heap of rags when mother and daughter were gone up to their chamber, and since the old woman’s death it was much if Jane had enjoyed one hour of unbroken sleep. She endeavoured to hide these feelings, but Clem, with her Bed Indian scent, divined them accurately enough. She hit upon a good idea.
‘Go into the next room,’ she commanded suddenly, ‘and fetch the matches off of the mantel-piece. I shall want to go upstairs presently, to see if you’ve scrubbed the bed-room well.’
Jane was blanched; but she rose from her knees at once, and reached a candlestick from above the fireplace.
‘What’s that for?’ shouted Clem, with her mouth full. ‘You’ve no need of a light to find the mantel-piece. If you’re not off—’
Jane hastened from the kitchen. Clem yelled to her to close the door, and she had no choice but to obey. In the dark passage outside there was darkness that might be felt. The child all but fainted with the sickness of horror as she turned the handle of the other door and began to grope her way. She knew exactly where the coffin was; she knew that to avoid touching it in the diminutive room was all but impossible. And touch it she did. Her anguish uttered itself, not in a mere sound of terror, but in a broken word or two of a prayer she knew by heart, including a name which sounded like a charm against evil. She had reached the mantel-piece; oh, she could not, could not find the matches I Yes, at last her hand closed on them. A blind rush, and she was out again in the passage. She re-entered the front-kitchen with limbs that quivered, with the sound of dreadful voices ringing about her, and blankness before her eyes.
Clem laughed heartily, then finished her beer in a long, enjoyable pull. Her appetite was satisfied; the last trace of oleaginous matter had disappeared from her plate, and now she toyed with little pieces of bread lightly dipped into the mustard-pot. These bonnes bouches put her into excellent humour; presently she crossed her arms and leaned back. There was no denying that Clem was handsome; at sixteen she had all her charms in apparent maturity, and they were of the coarsely magnificent order. Her forehead was low and of great width; her nose was well shapen, and had large sensual apertures; her cruel lips may be seen on certain fine antique busts; the neck that supported her heavy head was splendidly rounded. In laughing, she became a model for an artist, an embodiment of fierce life independent of morality. Her health was probably less sound than it seemed to be; one would have compared her, not to some piece of exuberant normal vegetation, but rather to a rank, evilly-fostered growth. The putrid soil of that nether world yields other forms besides the obviously blighted and sapless.
‘Have you done any work for Mrs. Hewett to-day?’ she asked of her victim, after sufficiently savouring the spectacle of terror.
‘Yes, miss; I did the front-room fireplace, an’ fetched fourteen of coals, an’ washed out a few things.’
‘What did she give you?’
‘A penny, miss. I gave it to Mrs. Peckover before she went.’
‘Oh, you did? Well, look ‘ere; you’ll just remember in future that all you get from the lodgers belongs to me, an’ not to mother. It’s a new arrangement, understand. An’ if you dare to give up a ‘apenny to mother, I’ll lick you till you’re nothin’ but a bag o’ bones. Understand?’
Having on the spur of the moment devised this ingenious difficulty for the child, who was sure to suffer in many ways from such a conflict of authorities, Clem began to consider how she should spend her evening. After all, Jane was too poor-spirited a victim to afford long entertainment. Clem would have liked dealing with some one who showed fight—some one with whom she could try savage issue in real tooth-and-claw conflict. She had in mind a really exquisite piece of cruelty, but it was a joy necessarily postponed to a late hour of the night. In the meantime, it would perhaps be as well to take a stroll, with a view of meeting a few friends as they came away from the work-rooms. She was pondering the invention of some long and hard task to be executed by Jane in her absence, when a knocking at the house-door made itself heard. Clem at once went up to see who the visitor was.
A woman in a long cloak and a showy bonnet stood on the step, protecting herself with an umbrella from the bitter sleet which the wind was now driving through the darkness. She said that she wished to see Mrs. Hewett.
‘Second-floor front,’ replied Clem in the offhand, impertinent tone wherewith she always signified to strangers her position in the house.
The visitor regarded her with a look of lofty contempt, and, having deliberately closed her umbrella, advanced towards the stairs. Clem drew into the back regions for a few moments, but as soon as she heard the closing of a door in the upper part of the house, she too ascended, going on tip-toe, with a noiselessness which indicated another side of her character. Having reached the room which the visitor had entered, she brought her ear close to the keyhole, and remained in that attitude for a long time—nearly twenty minutes, in fact. Her sudden and swift return to the foot of the stairs was followed by the descent of the woman in the showy bonnet.
‘Miss Peckover I’ cried the latter when she had reached the foot of the stairs.
‘Well, what is it?’ asked Clem, seeming to come up from the kitchen.
‘Will you ‘ave the goodness to go an’ speak to Mrs. Hewett for a hinstant?’ said the woman, with much affectation of refined speech.
‘All right! I will just now, if I’ve time.’
The visitor tossed her head and departed, whereupon Clem at once ran upstairs. In five minutes she was back in the kitchen.
‘See ‘ere,’ she addressed Jane. ‘You know where Mr. Kirkwood works in St. John’s Square? You’ve been before now. Well, you’re to go an’ wait at the door till he comes out, and then you’re to tell him to come to Mrs. Hewett at wunst. Understand?—Why ain’t these tea-things all cleared away? All right Wait till you come back, that’s all. Now be off, before I skin you alive!’
On the floor in a corner of the kitchen lay something that had once been a girl’s hat. This Jane at once snatched up and put on her head. Without other covering, She ran forth upon her errand.
A FRIEND IN REQUEST
It was the hour of the unyoking of men. In the highways and byways of Clerkenwell there was a thronging of released toilers, of young and old, of male and female. Forth they streamed from factories and workrooms, anxious to make the most of the few hours during which they might live for themselves. Great numbers were still bent over their labour, and would be for hours to come, but the majority had leave to wend stablewards. Along the main thoroughfares the wheel-track was clangorous; every omnibus that clattered by was heavily laden with passengers; tarpaulins gleamed over the knees of those who sat outside. This way and that the lights were blurred into a misty radiance; overhead was mere blackness, whence descended the lashing rain. There was a ceaseless scattering of mud; there were blocks in the traffic, attended with rough jest or angry curse; there was jostling on the crowded pavement. Public-houses began to brighten up, to bestir themselves for the evening’s business. Streets that had been hives of activity since early morning were being abandoned to silence and darkness and the sweeping wind.
At noon to-day there was sunlight on the Surrey hills; the fields and lanes were fragrant with the first breath of spring, and from the shelter of budding copses many a primrose looked tremblingly up to the vision of blue sky. But of these things Clerkenwell takes no count; here it had been a day like any other, consisting of so many hours, each representing a fraction of the weekly wage. Go where you may in Clerkenwell, on every hand are multiform evidences of toil, intolerable as a nightmare. It is not as in those parts of London where the main thoroughfares consist of shops and warehouses and workrooms, whilst the streets that are hidden away on either hand are devoted in the main to dwellings Here every alley is thronged with small industries; all but every door and window exhibits the advertisement of a craft that is carried on within. Here you may see how men have multiplied toil for toil’s sake, have wrought to devise work superfluous, have worn their lives away in imagining new forms of weariness. The energy, the ingenuity daily put forth in these grimy burrows task the brain’s power of wondering. But that those who sit here through the livelong day, through every season, through all the years of the life that is granted them, who strain their eyesight, who overtax their muscles, who nurse disease in their frames, who put resolutely from them the thought of what existence might be—that these do it all without prospect or hope of reward save the permission to eat and sleep and bring into the world other creatures to strive with them for bread, surely that thought is yet more marvellous.
Workers in metal, workers in glass and in enamel, workers in weed, workers in every substance on earth, or from the waters under the earth, that can be made commercially valuable. In Clerkenwell the demand is not so much for rude strength as for the cunning fingers and the contriving brain. The inscriptions on the house-fronts would make you believe that you were in a region of gold and silver and precious stones. In the recesses of dim byways, where sunshine and free air are forgotten things, where families herd together in dear-rented garrets and cellars, craftsmen are for ever handling jewellery, shaping bright ornaments for the necks and arms of such as are born to the joy of life. Wealth inestimable is ever flowing through these workshops, and the hands that have been stained with gold-dust may, as likely as not, some day extend themselves in petition for a crust. In this house, as the announcement tells you, business is carried on by a trader in diamonds, and next door is a den full of children who wait for their day’s one meal until their mother has come home with her chance earnings. A strange enough region wherein to wander and muse. Inextinguishable laughter were perchance the fittest result of such musing; yet somehow the heart grows heavy, somehow the blood is troubled in its course, and the pulses begin to throb hotly.
Amid the crowds of workpeople, Jane Snowdon made what speed she might. It was her custom, whenever dispatched on an errand, to run till she could run no longer, then to hasten along panting until breath and strength were recovered. When it was either of the Peckovers who sent her, she knew that reprimand was inevitable on her return, be she ever so speedy; but her nature was incapable alike of rebellion and of that sullen callousness which would have come to the aid of most girls in her position. She did not serve her tyrants with willingness, for their brutality filled her with a sense of injustice; yet the fact that she was utterly dependent upon them for her livelihood, that but for their grace—as they were perpetually reminding her—she would have been a workhouse child, had a mitigating effect upon the bitterness she could not wholly subdue.
There was, however, another reason why she sped eagerly on her present mission. The man to whom she was conveying Mrs. Hewett’s message was one of the very few persons who had ever treated her with human kindness. She had known him by name and by sight for some years, and since her mother’s death (she was eleven when that happened) he had by degrees grown to represent all that she understood by the word ‘friend.’ It was seldom that words were exchanged between them; the opportunity came scarcely oftener than once a month; but whenever it did come, it made a bright moment in her existence. Once before she had fetched him of an evening to see Mrs. Hewett, and as they walked together he had spoken with what seemed to her wonderful gentleness, with consideration inconceivable from a tall, bearded man, well-dressed, and well to do in the world. Perhaps he would speak in the same way to-night; the thought of it made her regardless of the cold rain that was drenching her miserable garment, of the wind that now and then, as she turned a corner, took away her breath, and made her cease from running.
She reached St. John’s Square, and paused at length by a door on which was the inscription: ‘H. Lewis, Working Jeweller.’ It was just possible that the men had already left; she waited for several minutes with anxious mind. No; the door opened, and two workmen came forth. Jane’s eagerness impelled her to address one of them.
‘Please, sir, Mr. Kirkwood hasn’t gone yet, has he?’
‘No, he ain’t,’ the man answered pleasantly; and turning back, he called to some one within the doorway; ‘Hello, Sidney! here’s your sweetheart waiting for you.’
Jane shrank aside; but in a moment she saw a familiar figure; she advanced again, and eagerly delivered her message.
‘All right, Jane! I’ll walk on with you,’ was the reply. And whilst the other two men were laughing good-naturedly, Kirkwood strode away by the girl’s side. He seemed to be absent-minded, and for some hundred yards’ distance was silent; then he stopped of a sudden and looked down at his companion.
‘Why, Jane,’ he said, ‘you’ll get your death, running about in weather like this.’ He touched her dress. ‘I thought so; you’re wet through.’
There followed an inarticulate growl, and immediately he stripped off his short overcoat.
‘Here, put this on, right over your head. Do as I tell you, child!’
He seemed impatient to-night. Wasn’t he going to talk with her as before? Jane felt her heart sinking. With her hunger for kind and gentle words, she thought nothing of the character of the night, and that Sidney Kirkwood might reasonably be anxious to get over the ground as quickly as possible.
‘How is Mrs. Hewett?’ Sidney asked, when they were walking on again. ‘Still poorly, eh? And the baby?’
Then he was again mute. Jane had something she wished to say to him—wished very much indeed, yet she felt it would have been difficult even if he had encouraged her. As he kept silence and walked so quickly, speech on her part was utterly forbidden. Kirkwood, however, suddenly remembered that his strides were disproportionate to the child’s steps. She was an odd figure thus disguised in his over-jacket; he caught a glimpse of her face by a street lamp, and smiled, but with a mixture of pain.
‘Feel a bit warmer so?’ he asked.
‘Oh yes, sir.’
‘Haven’t you got a jacket, Jane?’
‘It’s all to pieces, sir. They’re goin’ to have it mended, I think.’
‘They’ was the word by which alone Jane ventured to indicate her aunt.
‘Going to, eh? I think they’d better be quick about it.’
Ha! that was the old tone of kindness! How it entered into her blood and warmed it! She allowed herself one quick glance at him.
‘Do I walk too quick for you?’
‘Oh no, sir. Mr. Kirkwood, please, there’s something I—’
The sentence had, as it were, begun itself, but timidity cut it short. Sidney stopped and looked at her.
‘What? Something you wanted to tell me, Jane?’
He encouraged her, and at length she made her disclosure. It was of what had happened in the public-house. The young man listened with much attention, walking very slowly. He got her to repeat her second-hand description of the old man who had been inquiring for people named Snowdon.
‘To think that you should have been just too late!’ he exclaimed with annoyance. ‘Have you any idea who he was?’
‘I can’t think, sir,’ Jane replied sadly.
Sidney took a hopeful tone—thought it very likely that the inquirer would pursue his search with success, being so near the house where Jane’s parents had lived.
‘I’ll keep my eyes open,’ he said. ‘Perhaps I might see him. He’d be easy to recognise, I should think.’
‘And would you tell him, sir,’ Jane asked eagerly.
‘Why, of course I would. You’d like me to, wouldn’t you?’
Jane’s reply left small doubt on that score. Her companion looked down at her again, and said with compassionate gentleness:
‘Keep a good heart, Jane. Things’ll be better some day, no doubt.’
‘Do you think so, sir?’
The significance of the simple words was beyond all that eloquence could have conveyed. Sidney muttered to himself, as he had done before, like one who is angry. He laid his hand on the child’s shoulder for a moment.
A few minutes more, and they were passing along by the prison wall, under the ghastly head, now happily concealed by darkness. Jane stopped a little short of the house and removed the coat that had so effectually sheltered her.
‘Thank you, sir,’ she said, returning it to Sidney.
He took it without speaking, and threw it over his arm. At the door, now closed, Jane gave a single knock; they were admitted by Clem, who, in regarding Kirkwood, wore her haughtiest demeanour. This young man had never paid homage of any kind to Miss Peckover, and such neglect was by no means what she was used to. Other men who came to the house took every opportunity of paying her broad compliments, and some went so far as to offer practical testimony of their admiration. Sidney merely had a ‘How do you do, miss?’ at her service. Coquetry had failed to soften him; Clem accordingly behaved as if he had given her mortal offence on some recent occasion. She took care, moreover, to fling a few fierce words at Jane before the latter disappeared into the house. Thereupon Sidney looked at her sternly; he said nothing, knowing that interference would only result in harsher treatment for the poor little slave.
‘You know your way upstairs, I b’lieve,’ said Clem, as if he were all but a stranger.
‘Thank you, I do,’ was Sidney’s reply.
Indeed he had climbed these stairs innumerable times during the last three years; the musty smells were associated with ever so many bygone thoughts and states of feeling; the stains on the wall (had it been daylight), the irregularities of the bare wooden steps, were remembrancers of projects and hopes and disappointments. For many months now every visit had been with heavier heart; his tap at the Hewetts’ door had a melancholy sound to him.
A woman’s voice bade him enter. He stepped into a room which was not disorderly or unclean, but presented the chill discomfort of poverty. The principal, almost the only, articles of furniture were a large bed, a wash-hand stand; a kitchen table, and two or three chairs, of which the cane seats were bulged and torn. A few meaningless pictures hung here and there, and on the mantel-piece, which sloped forward somewhat, stood some paltry ornaments, secured in their places by a piece of string stretched in front of them. The living occupants were four children and their mother. Two little girls, six and seven years old respectively, were on the floor near the fire; a boy of four was playing with pieces of fire-wood at the table. The remaining child was an infant, born but a fortnight ago, lying at its mother’s breast. Mrs. Hewett sat on the bed, and bent forward in an attitude of physical weakness. Her age was twenty-seven, but she looked several years older. At nineteen she had married; her husband, John Hewett, having two children by a previous union. Her face could never have been very attractive, but it was good-natured, and wore its pleasantest aspect as she smiled on Sidney’s entrance. You would have classed her at once with those feeble-willed, weak-minded, yet kindly-disposed women, who are only too ready to meet affliction half-way, and who, if circumstances be calamitous, are more harmful than an enemy to those they hold dear. She was rather wrapped up than dressed, and her hair, thin and pale-coloured, was tied in a ragged knot. She wore slippers, the upper parts of which still adhered to the soles only by miracle. It looked very much as if the same relation subsisted between her frame and the life that informed it, for there was no blood in her cheeks, no lustre in her eye. The baby at her bosom moaned in the act of sucking; one knew not how the poor woman could supply sustenance to another being.
The children were not dirty nor uncared for, but their clothing hung very loosely upon them; their flesh was unhealthy, their voices had an unnatural sound.
Sidney stepped up to the bed and gave his hand.
‘I’m so glad you’ve come before Clara,’ said Mrs. Hewett. ‘I hoped you would. But she can’t be long, an’ I want to speak to you first. It’s a bad night, isn’t it? Yes, I feel it in my throat, and it goes right through my chest—just ‘ere, look! And I haven’t slep’ not a hour a night this last week; it makes me feel that low. I want to get to the Orspital, if I can, in a day or two.’
‘But doesn’t the doctor come still?’ asked Sidney, drawing a chair near to her.
‘Well, I didn’t think it was right to go on payin’ him, an’ that’s the truth. I’ll go to the Orspital, an’ they’ll give me somethin’. I look bad, don’t I, Sidney?’
‘You look as if you’d no business to be out of bed,’ returned the young man in a grumbling voice.
‘Oh, I can’t lie still, so it’s no use talkin’! But see, I want to speak about Clara. That woman Mrs. Tubbs has been here to see me, talkin’ an’ talkin’. She says she’ll give Clara five shillin’ a week, as well as board an’ lodge her. I don’t know what to do about it, that I don’t. Clara, she’s that set on goin’, an’ her father’s that set against it. It seems as if it ‘ud be a good thing, don’t it, Sidney? I know you don’t want her to go, but what’s to be done? What is to be done?’
Her wailing voice caused the baby to wail likewise. Kirkwood looked about the room with face set in anxious discontent.
‘Is it no use, Mrs. Hewett?’ he exclaimed suddenly, turning to her. ‘Does she mean it? Won’t she ever listen to me?’
The woman shook her head miserably; her eyes filled with tears.
‘I’ve done all I could,’ she replied, half sobbing. ‘I have; you know I have, Sidney! She’s that ‘eadstrong, it seems as if she wouldn’t listen to nobody—at least nobody as we knows anything about.’
‘What do you mean by that?’ he inquired abruptly. ‘Do you think there’s any one else?’
‘How can I tell? I’ve got no reason for thinkin’ it, but how can I tell? No, I believe it’s nothin’ but her self-will an’ the fancies she’s got into her ‘ead. Both her an’ Bob, there’s no doin’ nothin’ with them. Bob, he’s that wasteful with his money; an’ now he talks about goin’ an’ gettin’ a room in another ‘ouse, when he might just as well make all the savin’ he can. But no, that ain’t his idea, nor yet his sister’s. I suppose it’s their mother as they take after, though their father he won’t own to it, an’ I don’t blame him for not speakin’ ill of her as is gone. I should be that wretched if I thought my own was goin’ to turn out the same. But there’s John, he ain’t a wasteful man; no one can’t say it of him. He’s got his fancies, but they’ve never made him selfish to others, as well you know, Sidney. He’s been the best ‘usband to me as ever a poor woman had, an’ I’ll say it with my last breath.’
She cried pitifully for a few moments. Sidney, mastering his own wretchedness, which he could not altogether conceal, made attempts to strengthen her.
‘When things are at the worst they begin to mend,’ he said. ‘It can’t be much longer before he gets work. And look here, Mrs. Hewett, I won’t hear a word against it; you must and shall let me lend you something to go on with!’
‘I dursn’t, I dursn’t, Sidney! John won’t have it. He’s always a-saying: “Once begin that, an’ it’s all up; you never earn no more of your own.” It’s one of his fancies, an’ you know it is. You’ll only make trouble, Sidney.’
‘Well, all I can say is, he’s an unreasonable and selfish man!’
‘No, no; John ain’t selfish! Never say that! It’s only his fancies, Sidney.’
‘Well, there’s one trouble you’d better get rid of, at all events. Let Clara go to Mrs. Tubbs. You’ll never have any peace till she does, I can see that. Why shouldn’t she go, after all? She’s seventeen; if she can’t respect herself now, she never will, and there’s no help for it. Tell John to let her go.’
There was bitterness in the tone with which he gave this advice; he threw out his hands impatiently, and then flung himself back, so that the cranky chair creaked and tottered.
‘An’ if ‘arm comes to her, what then?’ returned Mrs. Hewett plaintively. ‘We know well enough why Mrs. Tubbs wants her; it’s only because she’s good-lookin’, an’ she’ll bring more people to the bar. John knows that, an’ it makes him wild. Mind what I’m tellin’ you, Sidney; if any ‘arm comes to that girl, her father’ll go out of his ‘ead. I know he will! I know he will! He worships the ground as she walks on, an’ if it hadn’t been for that, she’d never have given him the trouble as she is doin’. It ‘ud a been better for her if she’d had a father like mine, as was a hard, careless man. I don’t wish to say no ‘arm of him as is dead an’ buried, an’ my own father too, but he was a hard father to us, an’ as long as he lived we dursn’t say not a word as he didn’t like. He’d a killed me if I’d gone on like Clara. It was a good thing as he was gone, before—’
‘Don’t, don’t speak of that,’ interposed Kirkwood, with kindly firmness. ‘That’s long since over and done with and forgotten.’
‘No, no; not forgotten. Clara knows, an’ that’s partly why she makes so little of me; I know it is.’
‘I don’t believe it! She’s a good-hearted girl—’
A heavy footstep on the stairs checked him. The door was thrown open, and there entered a youth of nineteen, clad as an artisan. He was a shapely fellow, though not quite so stout as perfect health would have made him, and had a face of singular attractiveness, clear-complexioned, delicate featured, a-gleam with intelligence. The intelligence was perhaps even too pronounced; seen in profile, the countenance had an excessive eagerness; there was selfish force about the lips, moreover, which would have been better away. His noisy entrance indicated an impulsive character, and the nod with which he greeted Kirkwood was self-sufficient.
‘Where’s that medal I cast last night, mother?’ he asked, searching in various corners of the room and throwing things about.
‘Now, do mind what you’re up to, Bob!’ remonstrated Mrs. Hewett. ‘You’ll find it on the mantel in the other room. Don’t make such a noise.’
The young man rushed forth, and in a moment returned. In his hand, which was very black, and shone as if from the manipulation of metals, he held a small bright medal. He showed it to Sidney, saying, ‘What d’you think o’ that?’
The work was delicate and of clever design; it represented a racehorse at full speed, a jockey rising in the stirrups and beating it with orthodox brutality.
‘That’s “Tally-ho” at the Epsom Spring Meetin’,’ he said. ‘I’ve got money on him!’
And, with another indifferent nod, he flung out of the room.
Before Mrs. Hewett and Kirkwood could renew their conversation, there was another step at the door, and the father of the family presented himself.
A SUPERFLUOUS FAMILY
Kirkwood’s face, as he turned to greet the new-comer, changed suddenly to an expression of surprise.
‘Why, what have you been doing to your hair?’ he asked abruptly.
A stranger would have seen nothing remarkable in John Hewett’s hair, unless he had reflected that, being so sparse, it had preserved its dark hue and its gloss somewhat unusually. The short beard and whiskers were also of richer colour than comported with the rest of the man’s appearance. Judging from his features alone, one would have taken John for sixty at least; his years were in truth not quite two-and-fifty. He had the look of one worn out with anxiety and hardship; the lines engraven upon his face were of extraordinary depth and frequency; there seemed to be little flesh between the dry skin and the bones which sharply outlined his visage. The lips were, like those of his son, prominent and nervous, but none of Bob’s shrewdness was here discoverable; feeling rather than intellect appeared to be the father’s characteristic. His eyes expressed self-will, perhaps obstinacy, and he had a peculiarly dogged manner of holding his head. At the present moment he was suffering from extreme fatigue; he let himself sink upon a chair, threw his hat on to the floor, and rested a hand on each knee. His boots were thickly covered with mud; his corduroy trousers were splashed with the same. Rain had drenched him; it trickled to the floor from all his garments.
For answer to Sidney’s question, he nodded towards his wife, and said in a thick voice, ‘Ask her.’
‘He’s dyed it,’ Mrs. Hewett explained, with no smile. ‘He thought one of the reasons why he couldn’t get work was his lookin’ too old.’
‘An’ so it was,’ exclaimed Hewett, with an angry vehemence which at once declared his position and revealed much of his history. ‘So it was. My hair was a bit turned, an’ nowadays there’s no chance for old men. Ask any one you like. Why, there’s Sam Lang couldn’t even get a job at gardenin’ ‘cause his hair was a bit turned. It was him as told me what to do. “Dye your hair, Jack,” he says; “it’s what I’ve had to myself,” he says. “They won’t have old men nowadays, at no price.” Why, there’s Jarvey the painter; you know him, Sidney. His guvnor sent him on a job to Jones’s place, an’ they sent him back. “Why, he’s an old man,” they says. “What good’s a man of that age for liftin’ ladders about?” An’ Jarvey’s no older than me.’
Sidney knitted his brows. He had heard the complaint from too many men to be able to dispute its justice.
‘When there’s twice too many of us for the work that’s to be done,’ pursued John, ‘what else can you expect? The old uns have to give way, of course. Let ‘em beg; let ‘em starve! What use are they?’
Mrs. Hewett had put a kettle on the fire, and began to arrange the table for a meal.
‘Go an’ get your wet things off, John,’ she said. ‘You’ll be havin’ your rheumatics again.’
‘Never mind me, Maggie. What business have you to be up an’ about? You need a good deal more takin’ care of than I do. Here, let Amy get the tea.’
The three children, Amy, Annie, and Tom, had come forward, as only children do who are wont to be treated affectionately on their father’s return. John had a kiss and a caress for each of them; then he stepped to the bed and looked at his latest born. The baby was moaning feebly; he spoke no word to it, and on turning away glanced about the room absently. In the meantime his wife had taken some clothing from a chest of drawers, and at length he was persuaded to go into the other room and change. When he returned, the meal was ready. It consisted of a scrap of cold steak, left over from yesterday, and still upon the original dish amid congealed fat; a spongy half-quartern loaf, that species of baker’s bread of which a great quantity can be consumed with small effect on the appetite; a shapeless piece of something purchased under the name of butter, dabbed into a shallow basin; some pickled cabbage in a tea-cup; and, lastly, a pot of tea, made by adding a teaspoonful or two to the saturated leaves which had already served at breakfast and mid-day. This repast was laid on a very dirty cloth. The cups were unmatched and chipped, the knives were in all stages of decrepitude; the teapot was of dirty tin, with a damaged spout.
Sidney began to affect cheerfulness. He took little Annie on one of his knees, and Tom on the other. The mature Amy presided. Hewett ate the morsel of meat, evidently without thinking about it; he crumbled a piece of bread, and munched mouthfuls in silence. Of the vapid liquor called tea he drank cup after cup.
‘What’s the time?’ he asked at length. ‘Where’s Clara?’
‘I daresay she’s doin’ overtime,’ replied his wife. ‘She won’t be much longer.’
The man was incapable of remaining in one spot for more than a few minutes. Now he went to look at the baby; now he stirred the fire; now he walked across the room aimlessly. He was the embodiment of worry. As soon as the meal was over, Amy, Annie, and Tom were sent off to bed. They occupied the second room, together with Clara; Bob shared the bed of a fellow-workman upstairs. This was great extravagance, obviously; other people would have made two rooms sufficient for all, and many such families would have put up with one. But Hewett had his ideas of decency, and stuck to them with characteristic wilfulness.
‘Where do you think I’ve been this afternoon?’ John began, when the three little ones were gone, and Mrs. Hewett had been persuaded to lie down upon the bed. ‘Walked to Enfleld an’ back. I was told of a job out there; but it’s no good; they’re full up. They say exercise is good for the ‘ealth. I shall be a ‘ealthy man before long, it seems to me. What do you think?’
‘Have you been to see Corder again?’ asked Sidney, after reflecting anxiously.
‘No, I haven’t!’ was the angry reply; ‘an’ what’s more, I ain’t goin’ to! He’s one o’ them men I can’t get on with. As long as you make yourself small before him, an’ say “sir” to him with every other word, an’ keep tellin’ him as he’s your Providence on earth, an’ as you don’t know how ever you’d get on without him—well, it’s all square, an’ he’ll keep you on the job. That’s just what I can’t do—never could, an’ never shall. I should have to hear them children cryin’ for food before I could do it. So don’t speak to me about Corder again. It makes me wild!’
Sidney tapped the floor with his foot. Himself a single man, without responsibilities, always in fairly good work, he could not invariably sympathise with Hewett’s sore and impracticable pride. His own temper did not err in the direction of meekness, but as he looked round the room he felt that a home such as this would drive him to any degree of humiliation. John knew what the young man’s thoughts were; he resumed in a voice of exasperated bitterness.
‘No, I haven’t been to Corder—I beg his pardon; Mister Corder—James Corder, Esquire. But where do you think I went this mornin’? Mrs. Peckover brought up a paper an’ showed me an advertisement. Gorbutt in Goswell Bead wanted a man to clean windows an’ sweep up, an’ so on;—offered fifteen bob a week. Well, I went. Didn’t I, mother? Didn’t I go after that job? I got there at half-past eight; an’ what do you think I found? If there was one man standin’ at Gorbutt’s door, there was five hundred! Don’t you believe me? You go an’ ask them as lives about there. If there was one, there was five hundred! Why, the p’lice had to come an’ keep the road clear. Fifteen bob! What was the use o’ me standin’ there, outside the crowd? What was the use, I say? Such a lot o’ poor starvin’ devils you never saw brought together in all your life. There they was, lookin’ ready to fight with one another for the fifteen bob a week. Didn’t I come back and tell you about it, mother? An’ if they’d all felt like me, they’d a turned against the shop an’ smashed it up—ay, an’ every other shop in the street! What use? Why, no use; but I tell you that’s how I felt. If any man had said as much as a rough word to me, I’d a gone at him like a bulldog. I felt like a beast. I wanted to fight, I tell you—to fight till the life was kicked an’ throttled out of me!’
‘John, don’t, don’t go on in that way,’ cried his wife, sobbing miserably. ‘Don’t let him go on like that, Sidney.’
Hewett jumped up and walked about.
‘What’s the time?’ he asked the next moment. And when Sidney told him that it was half-past nine, he exclaimed, ‘Then why hasn’t Clara come ‘ome? What’s gone with her?’
‘Perhaps she’s at Mrs. Tubbs’s,’ replied his wife, in a low voice, looking at Kirkwood.
‘An’ what call has she to be there? Who gave her leave to go there?’
There was another exchange of looks between Sidney and Mrs. Hewett; then the latter with hesitation and timidity told of Mrs. Tubbs’s visit to her that evening, and of the proposals the woman had made.
‘I won’t hear of it:’ cried John. ‘I won’t have my girl go for a barmaid, so there’s an end of it. I tell you she shan’t go!’
‘I can understand you, Mr. Hewett,’ said Sidney, in a tone of argument softened by deference; ‘but don’t you think you’d better make a few inquiries, at all events? You see, it isn’t exactly a barmaid’s place. I mean to say, Mrs. Tubbs doesn’t keep a public-house where people stand about drinking all day. It is only a luncheon-bar, and respectable enough.’
John turned and regarded him with astonishment.
‘Why, I thought you was as much set against it as me? What’s made you come round like this? I s’pose you’ve got tired of her, an’ that’s made you so you don’t care.’
The young man’s eyes flashed angrily, but before he could make a rejoinder Mrs. Hewett interposed.
‘For shame o’ yourself, John If you can’t talk better sense than that, don’t talk at all. He don’t mean it, Sidney. He’s half drove off his head with trouble.’
‘If he does think it,’ said Kirkwood, speaking sternly but with self-command, ‘let him say what he likes. He can’t say worse than I should deserve.’
There was an instant of silence. Hewett’s head hung with more than the usual doggedness. Then he addressed Sidney, sullenly, but in a tone which admitted his error.
‘What have you got to say? Never mind me. I’m only the girl’s father, an’ there’s not much heed paid to fathers nowadays. What have you got to say about Clara? If you’ve changed your mind about her goin’ there, just tell me why.’
Sidney could not bring himself to speak at once, but an appealing look from Mrs. Hewett decided him.
‘Look here, Mr. Hewett,’ he began, with blunt earnestness. If any harm came to Clara I should feel it every bit as much as you, and that you ought to know by this time. All the same, what I’ve got to say is this: Let her go to Mrs. Tubbs for a month’s trial. If you persist in refusing her, mark my words, you’ll be sorry. I’ve thought it all over, and I know what I’m talking about. The girl can’t put up with the work room any longer. It’s ruining her health, for one thing, anybody can see that, and it’s making her so discontented, she’ll soon get reckless. I understand your feeling well enough, but I understand her as well; at all events, I believe I do. She wants a change; she’s getting tired of her very life.’
‘Very well,’ cried the father in shrill irritation, ‘why doesn’t she take the change that’s offered to her? She’s no need to go neither to workroom nor to bar. There’s a good home waiting for her, isn’t there? What’s come to the girl? She used to go on as if she liked you well enough.’
‘A girl alters a deal between fifteen and seventeen,’ Sidney replied, forcing himself to speak with an air of calmness, of impartiality. ‘She wasn’t old enough to know her own mind. I’m tired of plaguing her. I feel ashamed to say another word to her, and that’s the truth. She only gets more and more set against me. If it’s ever to come right, it’ll have to be by waiting; we won’t talk about that any more. Think of her quite apart from me, and what I’ve been hoping. She’s seventeen years old. You can’t deal with a girl of that age like you can with Amy and Annie. You’ll have to trust her, Mr. Hewett. You’ll have to, because there’s no help for it. We’re working people, we are; we’re the lower orders; our girls have to go out and get their livings. We teach them the best we can, and the devil knows they’ve got examples enough of misery and ruin before their eyes to help them to keep straight. Rich people can take care of their daughters as much as they like; they can treat them like children till they’re married; people of our kind can’t do that, and it has to be faced.’
John sat with dark brow, his eyes staring on vacancy.
‘It’s right what Sidney says, father,’ put in Mrs. Hewett; ‘we can’t help it.’
‘You may perhaps have done harm when you meant only to do good,’ pursued Sidney. ‘Always being so anxious, and showing what account you make of her, perhaps you’ve led her to think a little too much of herself. She knows other fathers don’t go on in that way. And now she wants more freedom, she feels it worse than other girls do when you begin to deny her. Talk to her in a different way; talk as if you trusted her. Depend upon it, it’s the only hold you have upon her. Don’t be so much afraid. Clara has her faults—see them as well as any one—but I’ll never believe she’d darken your life of her own free will.’